Festivals, Robert Johnson and Paul Simon Looking Back – Best of the first three quarters
(a very late reckoning)
By Doug Heselgrave
My basement threatens to flood, my house’s foundation is showing its age and the sewer pipes are wound into a chokehold by roots from the 60 foot tall blue spruce in my front yard. Wringing my hands over money I don’t have to pay for the repairs and straining my aging back (I’m digging as fast as I can!) haven’t left me much time to write recently, so instead of an in depth look back at individual concerts, artists and CDs that have moved and impressed me over the last few months, I have only this abbreviated round up to offer. My apologies to all!
This summer, I was lucky enough this year to attend four music festivals, which – as exhilarating as the festival experience is– can also be collectively exhausting with acts, songs and venues blurring into each other. Now that winter is just around the corner, I’ve had time to let the dust settle and the music I heard permeate a little more deeply, I realize how lucky I’ve been this year.
Living in British Columbia, we get spoiled by an abundance of music festivals. Any festival relies on the alchemical interaction of diverse elements – setting, music, staff, weather, food – to create a vibe and temporary sense of community. The venerable Vancouver Folk Festival has been located at Jericho Beach for more than 30 years and this summer’s offerings were better than most. The opportunity to hear Gillian Welch, Justin Townes Earle and Roseanne Cash – amongst others – in a gorgeous waterfront park – complete with protected environments for waterfowl and sacred First Nations aboriginal sites is something I will never tire of.
Doug Cox’s Vancouver Island Music Festival has really come into its own in the last few years and continues to attract a variety of worldclass roots, world and country acts every July. Though the festival was challenged by rain, the mercurial weather conditions inspired rather than deterred opening night headliners, Alison Krauss and Union Station to give one of the most inspired, improvisational and uplifting concerts I’d seen in some time. Their live act continues to get better every time I hear them. It was also thrilling to hear Randy Newman perform, reminding me that sometimes there is nothing more entertaining than listening to a man alone at a piano. Songs as great as Newman’s will never go out of fashion.
The rain blew over the prairies and met me in Alberta where I’d flown in to attend the Calgary Folk Festival for the very first time. While it’s still obviously growing and establishing its identity, Calgary has come out of the shadow of its older sibling, The Edmonton Folk Festival to offer a very solid weekend of diverse musical entertainment. Highlights included an incendiary performance by a rejuvenated kd Lang as well as great sets from up and comers, The Head and the Heart and reggae originator, Ernest Ranglin. I can’t wait to go again!
In mid-August, I attended the Burnaby Roots and Blues festival for the second time. I heard kd Lang perform exactly the same set as she did in Calgary, but it was every bit as exciting. She is truly at the top of her game. It is difficult to imagine that there is a better, more accomplished, singer on the live circuit today. As good as kd was, the real diamond in the rough that day came from the septuagenarian British bluesman, John Mayall. Over the years, Mayall’s live shows have been hit and miss affairs; I’ve heard him ride the blues muse bareback to drive his fans into fits of ecstasy while other times I’ve been rapidly exhausted and bored by the metallic white noise that his sometimes barely competent bands have tried to pass off as music. In Burnaby, a loose limbed, fit looking Mayall took a sold out crowd on a journey through the back pages of his songbook as he offered generous, improvised versions of classics such as “Key to the Highway” and “Room to Move.” It was truly a performance to remember and one worthy of his considerable legacy.
Recorded legacies – Retrospectives on CD
This year, more than most, there seems to have been a real plethora of interesting reissues, retrospective and archival live sets released – often at budget prices and with accompanying alternate, demo or live versions of classic songs tacked on to tempt serious fans. Here – in no particular order – are some of my favourites of the year so far –
The Complete Recordings by Robert Johnson
You’ve may have heard these songs so many times that they’ve become more than songs and you don’t even notice them anymore when they play. Is it even possible a century after Robert Johnson’s birth to treat the twenty-nine tracks he recorded during his life simply as music? While it’s true that we live in an age of hyperbole – where words like biggest, best, essential, and groundbreaking are thrown carelessly around to describe everything from a new iphone app to the latest Kanye West CD, it’s more than anyone can do to review this music in anything resembling a conventional way. Really, each of these songs offers more and better than we humans deserve. They effortlessly express what it means to be alive more than just about any other music I’ve ever heard.
You’ve been told The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan – or the blues as it’s become – couldn’t have happened without him. The sound he pioneered has become a cliché that everyone can play once they’ve got three chords under their belt. But, isn’t that the beauty of Robert Johnson’s music? It’s not aloof or elevated beyond our reach. It’s familiar. It’s part of the map of the human soul that we spend our lives mutely striving to live inside of.
“Come on into my kitchen Cause it’s gonna be rainy outdoors”
No matter how many times you’ve heard those lines or lived these songs, they’ve never sounded better than they do on the newly remastered ‘Complete Recordings’ issued by Sony Legacy in celebration of Johnson’s centenary. As important as Shakespeare, as deep as Lao Tse, Johnson’s songs are the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of American music.
If you could only own one record, this would be the one. Hands down. It’s all been downhill from here.
Paul Simon – Re-mastered and Reconsidered
(Paul Simon, There goes Rhymin’ Simon, Still crazy after all these years, Live Rhymin’)
It’s taken me years to warm up to Paul Simon’s music again. As a kid, I couldn’t get away from listening to Simon and Garfunkel on family car trips; while at school, desperate English teachers striving to be hip had us study ‘I am a Rock’ and ‘The Boxer’ in poetry class. By the time I was in senior high, punk crashed over our suburban neighbourhood like a tidal wave to scatter the music of corporate rockers like Yes, The Eagles and Pink Floyd so far from my turntable that it would take decades for them to work their way back.
In this environment, Paul Simon didn’t fare too well. He was too self absorbed as he sang in minute detail about his neuroses, and how hard it was to be a sensitive, rich, understood musician. Add to that the accusations of musical appropriation that have dogged him for years over ‘Loves me like a Rock’, ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ to say nothing of the vitriol from members of Los Lobos and ethnomusicologists over the songs on Graceland.
So, maybe I’m getting soft in the head, but I’ve really loved Simon’s last two albums ‘Surprise’ and ‘So Beautiful…or So What’ and decided to give his back catalogue a second chance -much to the chagrin of my eleven year old daughter who could only offer ‘Doesn’t he have his own style at all?’ after enduring hearing his first five albums almost non-stop for a week. Ironically, she’s partly to blame for my decision to review these albums. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney (who once represented the absolute nadir of pop music for me) have all found new life with the kids in my neighbourhood and I thought that perhaps I should give the much maligned Simon a second chance.
Like everyone of my generation, I knew all of Simon’s hits, had heard them a million times each on the radio, but I hadn’t really listened to any of his earlier albums in over 30 years. Surprisingly, for the most part, they’ve really stood the test of time. To state the obvious, Paul Simon is a great songwriter. For every hit like ‘Mother and Child Reunion’, there’s an understated gem like ‘Duncan’ with its stripped down charm that would find favour if recorded by a new indie or lo fi group like The Fleet Foxes or Iron and Wine.
The songs on ‘Still Crazy after all these years’ represent a high point of his self-absorption, but the late seventies was a navel gazing era and Simon plunged in deeper than most. Yet, even this record has its hidden gems. ‘Gone at Last’ features a ripping gospel vocal from the recently departed Phoebe Snow that really made me stop what I was doing, listen and press ‘repeat.’
Even though the world in Simon’s music comes from often feels no more than two inches wide, it’s comes off as about four hundred feet deep as he spins koans and conundrums about life in the late twentieth century. Dressed up in melodies that only Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson could rival, there’s something in Simon’s everyman Woody Allen with a beat voice that remains appealing.
Budget priced with bonus tracks and demo versions, if you haven’t listened to Paul Simon’s music in a while, these newly remastered versions of his classic albums are a great place to start. You might be surprised by how good they sound.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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